Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan On Her Sundance Success And Upcoming Role On ‘Girls’

by Holly Trantham


Every so often, a filmmaker comes along who shows us the world from an entirely new angle. We’re currently obsessed Desiree Akhavan, co-creator and star of the web series The Slope, and we’re certain she’s on the cusp of something seriously big.

Akhavan’s first feature, Appropriate Behavior, premiered last year at Sundance Film Festival, and has since been to a total of 90 festivals. In it, Akhavan plays a young Brooklynite named Shirin who finds herself emotionally lost after a big breakup. Though the movie is not autobiographical, Shirin’s path echoes a lot of the director’s own life: She’s having trouble coming out as bisexual to her Iranian-American family.

The movie follows the highly-relatable theme of finding oneself in the world—and it’s also hilarious,  with sardonic-but-loving view of Brooklyn and the people who live there. We recently spoke to Akhavan about Appropriate Behavior, believable relationship stories, and her upcoming role in Girls—this talented woman is on fire.

You could say that Shirin’s tragic flaw is her trying to balance being bisexual and out and a good Iranian daughter all at the same time. How has the feedback been from these communities?

I don’t necessarily think it’s her tragic flaw…I think she’s been born these things and she doesn’t necessarily quite into any of them, and that, to me, is just her journey as a person, to be OK not fitting any of them.

I’ve had a handful of closeted Iranians talk to me after screenings and say they didn’t know what to do, [asking] what advice I would give them, which is really touching because when I came out, I had never even heard of a gay Iranian person, let alone seen one in real life or spoken to someone. It felt like I was coming out as an alien. It was one of those things that I just had no example of in my life…it was such uncharted territory that I was asking my parents to wrap their brains around something that just doesn’t exist in our community.

There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek social criticisms in the film, mostly about the way privileged white people react to other cultures, like a particularly funny moment between Shirin and her then-girlfriend at a Persian New Year party. Is this a deliberate part of your writing?

I have opinions on all these things, but I don’t want watching one of my films to feel like taking medicine. There’s a lot I want to say, and I feel like using comedy is the best, most efficient way to do it. But [Shirin’s comment] also fit that situation. I never have an agenda, but when a line like that comes along I get really excited about leaving it in through each draft, because it’s important to me to make that statement.

Do you write with a specific audience in mind?

I try not to think about whom I want to please. I want to make a good film that speaks to a lot of people. I think if you focus on what you love, and what makes for something an entertaining film, that to me seems like a good way to do it…I think with something like this it would really make me censor myself if I was constantly thinking, “Oh, who’s going to be offended by this? Who’s going to enjoy this? Who’s going to feel alienated by this?” 

There are no villains in the movie—is that deliberate?

For sure. I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a couple that doesn’t last. Especially being the child of immigrants and having both my parents work a lot, I was raised primarily on television. Everything I knew about love and life I gleaned from different TV shows and movies, and it was always very black or white. There’s the love of your life, and then there’s the bad guy. There are the good parents and the bad parents, the good friends and the bad friends. I was very surprised [after my first breakup] that you could love someone who was a good person and it could just not work after a while.

I think the parents [in the film] are good people, even though we may not agree with everything they do. I think Maxine is a really good person. Everybody is trying hard and there are no villains, but shit goes down and people act stupid.

How do you feel about this new wave of female “fuck ups” we’ve been seeing in film and television lately?

I’m always being asked about this new trend of women being human beings…I don’t see them as fuckups, I see them as people who are figuring it out in the entitled, normal way that men have been figuring it out in film forever. [Men] don’t have to exist in relation to other people. The journey of this film is just finding your place in the world, and figuring out how you want to carve out a little space outside of the clichés.

So when I hear all of these things looped together—Girls, Broad City, Obvious Child—as being a part of this “new wave,” they’re all really different stories, really different protagonists. It is really hilarious to me that we’ve grouped all women and all female-driven narratives that take place in New York now into this “fuckup” world of entitlement, but we haven’t even taken a look at what’s there. Straight white male narratives, no one calls them that, no one qualifies them. We call them films.

Can you tell us about your upcoming role in Girls?

I play a total asshole. Hannah’s in writing school and I play her classmate. I have really strict ideas for what makes for good and bad work, and I don’t acknowledge her as a real contributor to the class. I went to graduate school for filmmaking, so it was a really great role to play because I understood the dynamic of that kind of heady critique of artistic work, which inherently has no right or wrong, but when you’re studying at that level, there’s this underlying feeling that there is a right and wrong. It was a really fun and absurd.

Appropriate Behavior will be in select cities and available on iTunes Friday, January 16th.

Image c/o THR

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